Commentary

Glory still feels out of reach for Guardiola's great side

The first club to win the double after the Victorian era was Tottenham, in 1960-61. It was the prince of their team, Danny Blanchflower, who said football is not about winning, it is about glory.

That concept was embraced and inimitably burnished by Hugh McIlvanney. At a memorial service last Thursday, Gary Lineker read a rich passage from the sportswriter's farewell to Sir Matt Busby, which returned to the theme.

Busby, Hugh said, "maintained an unshakeable allegiance to perhaps the most powerful basic truth about the game: that football greatness cannot be measured or recorded in statistics alone".

Busby knew that "the game's extraordinary grip on the imagination of countless millions is exerted not through scorelines but through the images of grace and skill, of courage and inventiveness it leaves to shimmer in the memory".

Doubles are now old hat. Manchester City have recorded England's first domestic treble.

And yet there remains a whiff of disgruntlement around the club and its supporters, a sense that due credit is still not theirs, that despite all the goals and wins and trophies under Pep Guardiola, that ultimate prize - glory - feels out of reach.

Glory is about appealing beyond a fan base to the wider sport, establishing the grip on millions that McIlvanney wrote about.


Players and staff celebrating on open-top buses during the Manchester City celebration parade, with
manager Pep Guardiola saying: ''Now is time for good dinners and good wine.'' PHOTO: DPA

It's about exerting a visceral, not just statistical, claim to be great. City have not grabbed enough guts and hearts and that is not only this writer's sense but Guardiola's.

How odd to hear the most gilded manager in history, on the threshold of one of his greatest feats, spending a pre-Cup final press conference mired in parochial angst, mithering about Liverpool and the Daily Mail.

Even if you have no reservations about the human rights and foreign policy of Abu Dhabi (and plenty do not), the fact that City are funded by an entire petro-rich country, giving them wealth unparalleled in the game, is a dynamic that romantics cannot ignore.

The reasons City are where they are, are complex.

The social media era has soured the milk of human kindness within football fans, making them petty about recognising excellence beyond their own clubs.

Tottenham won in a more generous age and accordingly were celebrated widely. So one of City's misfortunes is timing.

Another might be their football. They are almost too brilliant, too finely choreographed, too well-motivated.

Performance levels barely dip and their dominance of space and position leads to very little feeling of jeopardy in games.

Their triumphs can lack the sense of risk, spontaneity and drama the football public craves - even if Vincent Kompany supplied a moment for the ages with his crucial goal in the Premier League run-in against Leicester.

But most telling is their ownership. Even if you have no reservations about the human rights and foreign policy of Abu Dhabi (and plenty do not), the fact that City are funded by an entire petro-rich country, giving them wealth unparalleled in the game, is a dynamic that romantics cannot ignore.

The Emirati sponsors and the corporate-looking banners at the Etihad thanking owner Sheikh Mansour show how much state branding and strategy go into the club.

Events last week risked reducing further any sense of poetry about the club's hierarchy.

On Thursday, Uefa confirmed City have been referred to the Club Financial Control Body's adjudicatory chamber after an investigation following allegations of lying about breaches of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

A New York Times report suggesting investigators will push for City to be suspended from the Champions League for a season was not contradicted.

Then there was the footage of City employees singing a supporters' song about Liverpool being "battered in the streets" and "victims of it all".

Guardiola denied the singers had Sean Cox (the Liverpool fan assaulted before last season's Roma game, who suffered life-changing injuries) or Hillsborough in mind and struck a gentle tone.

This was in contrast to his employers, who had released a punchy club statement dismissive of any possibility that singing such a song was wrong.

It effectively licensed fans to use the chant despite its offensiveness to others.

All of which added to the sense of City as a super-powerful business, whose leaders dislike anything that tries to hold them to account.

As for glory, maybe winning the Champions League would help - because there is a City story of adversity and bad luck there. But a ban, of course, would hardly help that.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'Glory still feels out of reach for Guardiola's great side'. Print Edition | Subscribe